Looking down the barrel of a three-day weekend, a lot of people would rather spend the Fourth of July hiking, boating, barbecuing or burning up the highway between here and Aunt Myrtle’s house than spend their precious time off on patriotic frivolities.
Who can blame them? These are busy times, after all, and Colorado’s a busy place. Traditionalists, however, may crave an old-fashioned, flag-waving, watermelon-on-the-lawn sort of Independence Day, and there may be others for whom dear old Gotham has become a trifle warm, of late. For those patriotic citizens and willful exiles, a short drive west into the cool, welcoming bosom of Clear Creek County offered a summer holiday the way Norman Rockwell would have painted it.
Georgetown is a picturesque delight in any season. On Monday, with smiling families strolling casually along its shady lanes and pretty, smiling girls and handsome, smiling boys lining historic, flag-draped 6th Street, it was the very picture of America like Hollywood producers and political campaign managers imagine it. Except in Georgetown, on Monday, it was the real thing.
“It’s like going back 50 years,” said local author Sandra Dallas. “There’s a lot of patriotism and a whole lot of town spirit.” Dallas and her husband, Bob Atchison, had been tapped to Judge the Fourth of July parade – no small honor, one would think. “It’s because I have a house on Rose Avenue.”
In a fit of practicality going back four decades, Georgetown selects its parade judges from its citizenry living along the route. At 10 a.m., just an hour before go-time, the porch of Dallas’ small, pink clapboard house was getting heavy traffic from local partisans, some softening her up in favor of a particular entrant, others quietly tipping her off to the patent failings of others. It was distasteful and underhanded and thoroughly, charmingly, American. Dallas, of course, had her own preconceptions about what a champion should look like.
“The winners are usually fairly obvious,” she said. “I’ll probably give the award to my nephew.” That would be 2-year-old Forrest, who was scheduled to be pulled around the circuit in a little red wagon. Confronted by such overwhelming candor, one could do little but retreat to 6th Street and wait for Forrest to rattle by.
Built during a simpler age in a narrow space between purple mountain majesties, downtown Georgetown is a wonderfully intimate place to view a parade. Joe and Kathy Schmidt came early, staking out an advantageous corner location next to the Red Ram. Comfortable in folding chairs and holding a pair of flaxen-haired angels on their laps, The Schmidts live in Denver but make a yearly Independence Day pilgrimage to Georgetown.
“The parade, the fireworks, the water fight,” Kathy said, “we love it all.” The “water fight” is, more correctly, the Bucket Brigade Race scheduled for 2 p.m., but nobody seems to call it that, since the contest tends to spin quickly – and wetly – out of control. The Schmidts will spend the bulk of the day drying off, eating, strolling about town, relaxing by Clear Creek and anticipating the fireworks over Guanella Pass at dusk. “To be really good,” Joe explained, “fireworks have to echo off the mountains.”
At 11 a.m., a color guard of Marines in dress uniform led off bearing Old Glory and the banner of the Corps. To a person accustomed to the jaded indifference of the 21st century, the sight of hundreds of men instinctively removing their caps in deference to the flag was surprising and incredibly poignant. It was just the beginning. Little Forrest got a run for his money that day, and Dallas was not to be envied her high office.
A formation of old soldiers in white shirts and slacks, proud veterans of long-ago wars, marched down the street in close order, stopping at intervals and turning sharply to salute the crowd. They were followed by a procession of men who had fought in the last great battle of World War II, the bloody capture of Iwo Jima. Those aged and necessary reminders of the price of freedom gave way to more festive spectacles like a troupe of kilted bagpipers playing patriotic ditties like “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It’s impossible to really appreciate that song until it’s rendered on the pipes.
It was hard to guess the crowd’s favorite because it clearly loved everything that came down the pike, but the steady applause seemed to gain intensity when the Easter Seals HandiCamp contingent moved past behind a camp bus they had, themselves, painted up special for the occasion. Some walking, others following in wheelchairs, the young campers regarded the cheering multitudes with curiously dreamy smiles, perhaps unaccustomed to so much positive attention, and the crowd responded in spades.
Perhaps the most stirring moment of the parade was provided by the Clear Creek County Democrats. Led by a hearty band of pedestrians waving and tossing candy to potential swing-voters on either side, their grand convoy included a shining white jeep and a pair of stately American-made convertibles loaded with party notables and colorful signage proclaiming support for favored political representatives. The message of those few, those happy few, was a better America, and it is no exaggeration to say that gentlemen of Georgetown then abed shall think themselves accursed they were not there, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that saw the Democrats parade down 6th Street on Independence Day.
Jugglers, ancient giant-tired bicycles, squadrons of classic automobiles, brass bands, a semi-precision kazoo ensemble and whole cavalry brigades of youngsters tooling around on their way-over-decorated red-white-and-blue bikes – Georgetown’s parade was pretty much everything one wants to see on a bright, summer morning and almost never does.
Though no award was offered to Monday’s spectators, they deserved one. Their painted faces, funny hats and boundless enthusiasm made the event wonderfully interactive. One wouldn’t think a glittery tiara sprouting a pair of spinning antennae would produce a lump in the throat, but it does.
So who did Dallas like? Her top honor went to the Silver Plume School float, a very purple, largely inflatable, rugrat-intensive display that likes schools that are open and said so.
“It’s kind of political,” Dallas explained, “but when kids get together to ask you to save their school…” A shrug finished her sentence for her. Forrest may forgive his Aunt Sandra when he’s older. Maybe a lot older.
Following the parade, most people adjourned to City Park, a shady precinct of lush grass and beautiful trees where Georgetown’s industrious ladies were dishing up mighty plates of everything good to eat. At noon, looking like it had been installed in the park’s gazebo during construction, the already-ubiquitous Original Cowboy Band let loose with a rousing program of true-blue American tunes while contented families reclined on the lawn licking their fingers and patting their tummies. It was the Fourth of July in Mayberry without the oppressive humidity and irritating drawls.
Clear Creek County’s excellent Fourth of July observances aren’t confined to Georgetown, of course, and knowledgeable observers insist that Idaho Springs has been setting the standard for top-notch fireworks since the mid-1960s. There are, apparently, a lot of knowledgeable observers because three hours before show time there wasn’t an unoccupied inch of grass anywhere within three blocks of Miner Street.
True savants gravitate to the city parking lot sandwiched between Miner Street and Interstate 70, four blocks of folding chairs, hibachis and heady anticipation that directly face Bridal Veil Falls and Charley Tayler’s impressive water wheel, the Idaho Springs landmarks that help give the town’s pyrotechnic display it’s luminous reputation. The lot was also a sort of pre-display area where state-approved fireworks available to ordinary people were ignited in great numbers. Because Colorado law prohibits civilians from purchasing explosive fireworks, one must conclude that Idaho Springs was thick with small-arms fire that afternoon.
Determined to get a good spot, Stacy Fawcett and Chris Skipp arrived from Littleton at 1 p.m. and settled in to wait for darkness. Neither had seen the display before, but both were already amiably disposed toward the town.
“We have great memories of Idaho Springs,” Fawcett said. “We usually stop by Tommyknockers or the Buffalo Bar on the way back from fishing.” This year, they decided to make the town their destination instead of a way-station. “Some friends come here every year and told us we shouldn’t miss the fireworks, so here we are.”
A short distance away, Floyd Hill resident Linda Beasler acted as reluctant spokeswoman for a party of eight enjoying their umpteenth Independence Day in Idaho Springs. Its comfy seating, well-stocked coolers and expansive buffet table mark the group as seasoned enthusiasts. Parked in the first rank with an unimpeded view of the adjacent hillside, one might assume they had been there since first light. Not so.
“That’s why we have teenagers,” Beasler laughed. “We sent them here at 6:30 with two cars to grab our spot.” It’s that kind of enterprise and exploitation of child labor that made America the powerhouse it is today.
According to the Idaho Springs Fire Department, the show was to begin at “dusk.” The opening salvo, a glorious, blazing representation of Old Glory, was actually fired at 9:25 which is really more like “night.” Anyway, it was well worth the wait. What followed was a solid 50 minutes of superbly choreographed fireworks that lit up the surrounding hills and rebounded powerfully off the canyon walls. Thousands gasped in simultaneous admiration when a lengthy string of pyrotechnics strung across the hillside was lit, sending a shower of sparks cascading down the falls and backlighting the water wheel with a fiery curtain of stars. It would have been impressive anywhere but, thanks to Idaho Springs’ unique geography, it was pure magic.
At 10:15, a flaming banner reading “Goodnite ISFD” signaled the end of the show and the beginning of the desperate race to get onto the highway before the streets became a solid, creeping mass of frustrated motorists. It’s a yearly ritual that has done nothing to detract from the event’s popularity.
Independence Day means different things to different people, and spending the day mowing the lawn or finally taking down the Christmas lights can be legitimate acts of patriotism. Still, it’s heartening to know that there are places in Colorado’s high country where the Fourth of July is a full-blown celebration of national and community pride. In Clear Creek County, nobody needs an invitation to attend America’s best birthday party. They just need to relax and enjoy the fun.